ROCKLAND – Joe Steinberger thinks globally but acts locally.
Steinberger is a Rockland city councilor, lawyer and co-founder of the Penobscot School, a nonprofit language study center that operates out of a small, unpretentious wood-frame building on Gay Street. The school recently learned it is one of two applicants in Maine to be awarded a Federal Communications Commission license to operate a low-power FM radio station.
In January, the FCC created a new class of FM licenses, to be issued exclusively to nonprofit educational organizations. The stations must operate at 100 watts or less, must offer noncommercial programming, and reach audiences within a radius of 3.5 miles.
The new class of licenses was offered in response to small communities, churches and local interest groups that felt their concerns were not being represented by stations owned by media conglomerates.
In public hearings about the low-power FM stations, commercial stations and National Public Radio expressed concern that the new frequencies would interfere with existing stations. The FCC ruled that low-power stations must broadcast at least two-tenths of a megahertz away from existing frequencies.
The Penobscot School station – which has yet to choose its call letters – will broadcast at 93.3 FM.
The radio station, which may take a year to get on the air, and the school, Steinberger said, are both expressions of his interest in connecting the small city he loves with the world.
“I love Rockland,” he said, but after moving to Maine in 1972 and Rockland in 1983, he found he missed the cosmopolitan and international flavor of cities.
Steinberger and Julia Schulz founded the Penobscot School in 1986. Schulz is the school’s president, while Steinberger serves on the board of trustees.
Steinberger lived for a year in Italy as a child, and speaks some Italian and French. He continues to enjoy traveling abroad, but at the same time, is pleased to see the world come to Rockland. The school has drawn 300 students from 32 countries over the years.
From October to May, the school offers courses in French, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Russian and English as a second language, mostly for adults. From June to September, English immersion courses are offered, drawing about 40 students each year from around the world.
Steinberger envisions foreign language and culture as a significant part of the radio station’s programming. Mornings might begin with an eclectic mix of music from around the world, followed by a “German Hour,” or “Italian Hour,” with music, poetry and literature, news and conversation in the language.
“It could be a lesson,” he said of the language hours. “It could be a discussion about travel in France,” or an interview with a foreign-exchange student.
News from international press agencies is available by satellite, which Steinberger would like to see aired along with local news.
The remainder of the broadcast day might include forum discussions, local church services, speakers from the local Rotary or Kiwanis clubs, representatives from the Rockland Public Library talking about new books, high school, middle school and even elementary school students providing discussions, and live performances from local musicians and writers.
“Community radio” is how Steinberger describes his vision for the station. “The idea is not something controlled and narrow, promoting a particular point of view or a particular way of life,” he said, but rather “a form of communication for the whole community,” in all its diversity.
Steinberger estimates that $10,000 must be raised to purchase equipment for the station. He hopes to use a small, single-story garage that is adjacent to a building the school leases on Gay Street to house the studio and transmitter.
Steinberger lives in a small house across from the school, which he built himself. He often can be seen walking through Rockland’s downtown, which he said he does to avoid using a car whenever possible. On the city council, he has lent his voice to oppose an expansion by Wal-Mart and a tax break for the corporation that owns the Samoset Resort.
The local radio station and the school are consistent with his views of culture and communications.
“They’re about ‘local.’ They’re about ‘community,'” he said.
“People are tired of being spectators in their own culture,” he continued. We’re getting itchy in our seats.”
The low-power station will offer “a completely different potential for participation” than larger stations with call-in shows, he said.
“This will be a radio station that will come in loud and clear in Rockland, Maine, and nowhere else,” he said. “That’s the beauty of it.”
A dozen nonprofit educational organizations in Maine applied for the FCC licenses, but just the Penobscot School and the Maine Museum of Science and Technology in Yarmouth were successful. The FCC announced Dec. 21 that it would grant 255 licenses to groups in 20 states.
The FCC will allow additional applications from other states for low-power FM licenses next year.